Key activity indicators of successful companies

What makes successful companies different? What a great research question, and one that the University of Strathclyde posited a couple years back. They followed up with 37 companies, in 8 EU countries and gathered over 1,000 stories (interview descriptions of processes and activities).

Catherine Maguire from Strathclyde was presenting their findings. They began with the CIM-OSA model of business processes (one I’m very familiar with as it formed a good chunk of my research career). Turns out my supervisor was on the advisory panel for this work also, small world!

Basically, CIM-OSA identified three key processes that all businesses do: Manage, Operate, and Support. The research focus has been around Operate (and to a lesser extent Support). The research group I was with in Plymouth did most of the early work developing a reference model for the Operate Process. Catherine was looking at the Manage process.

Being a very industry orientated researcher (probably why I wasn’t very good as an academic) I always suspected that the actually process maps were less interesting that the activities and practices they represented. In my own research I concentrated more on these activities and the social systems around them, than the formal modelling (drawing boxes & arrows).

Catherine’s group has now confirmed what we all ‘knew’ but hadn’t ‘proved’. The actual processes in successful companies are the same as for less successful companies. Successful companies are a bit more integrated; the big difference is in the “how”.

Hugh MacLeod from The Hughtrain
Hugh MacLeod from The Hughtrain

Or as the song goes, “It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it”…

There are a hundred+1 jobs to do when you’re running a business, and they’re all important. Fulfilling Orders and Getting Orders (to use process speak) are probably the most important, but I was talking to a HR exec a couple nights ago that insisted that hiring the best people was the most important because they’d then make the business work (might have been a vested interest there).

So where do you start?

The more successful companies were generally more mature in all their Manage activities but Strathclyde did find that there were around 15 activities that seemed to differentiate more successful from less successful companies.

What Catherine’s research has found is that given equal resources, and for their 37 companies, higher maturity in these 15 activities was a reliable indicator of a successful company. Catherine flashed the activities up on screen and they were largely around communication (as I’d expect) but I didn’t get a chance to write them down, hopefully I’ll be able to update this post shortly with that list.

I did ask if they’d looked at how the Manage Processes that these activities represented subsequently interacted with the Operate Processes. From a business change perspective you’re generally presented with a whole load of symptoms operationally and have to analyse your way back to root causes. This research could really help by making explicit some of the implicit links that are learned from practice.

I’m following up with Catherine to see if I can reproduce that list of Activities here together with links to the online tool they’ve developed to help companies self-rate themselves.

Personally I can’t hold 15 things in my head simultaneously; what 5 activities are embedded in your organisation that differenciate you from the competition?

Pleasure vs Pain

Uploaded on May 22, 2007 by s_harding_uk

David Gilroy from Conscious Solutions nailed it at a Bristol Enterprise Network event last week when asked what changes he was making to his product to sell better in a recession.

“Absolutely none”. The pitch to clients is changing, however, from how a great website can enhance your offering to one that points out how a great website can retain and generate more revenue from existing clients. Moving from selling vitamins to pain relief.

Angel investors have always asked what pain you’re addressing. This advice was been given by Greg McAdoo – Partner, Sequoia Capital at Y Combinator’s 2007 Startup School, more recently by Mark MacLeod, and before and since by many others.

Which is great if you’re thinking up your new killer app. What was interesting with David was that he has a successful business and is quickly positioning his product to be that pain killing pill that people will spend money on.

I’m not working with David, but a company I am advising (Heliotrope) has a game that promotes soft skills in the education market (I’ll come back to education in a later post on markets, and we’re looking at other markets than just education). At the moment it’s a pretty vitamin offering, helping kids understand themselves and their group and getting ready for the school term ahead. However, Canada is suffering a major pain with kids dropping out of school. Part of the extensive piloting for the game was with kids at risk of dropping out. The feedback on their increased self-esteem and desire to re-engage means we’re nuancing the emphasis from vitamin benefit, towards pain relief.

We’re also looking for new sources of pain that the game can address. The game and it’s holistic benefits haven’t changed, but people buy pain relief now when they’ll pass up an opportunity to perhaps make things better in the future.

How are you positioning yourself to be an indispensable pain relief pill rather than a nice-to-have vitamin pill?

Education shaped & Bristol Fashion

Disclosure: This was originally published on TechCrunch UK, I’ve made some edits at the end in response to comment on TC, Underscore, Twitter etc.

Uploaded on March 29, 2007 by pictopedia
Uploaded on March 29, 2007 by pictopedia

Its not all stovepipe hats and clay dogs in Bristol, these days its more location aware gaming, mobile media and building businesses. As a relative newcomer to the city (5yrs and loving it) this is a quick peek around some start-ups.

Two Bristol startups you will have heard about are Glasses Direct (James Murray Wells, a UWE graduate) and MyBuilder (Ryan Notz, a Bristol Uni graduate). But what else is going on…

The Watershed, a digital media & arts complex in the heart of the city, has been mixing up creativity and technology for over 20 years.The place for start-ups is their new Pervasive Media Studio, headed by Clare in partnership with HP Labs & with heavy involvement from both Bristol University & UWE. The Studio launched with it’s Media Sandbox competition. Several of the projects came from larger established companies (including Aardman, HMC, BDH, Plot, etc) but the winning project brought together two startup companies, Thought Den (Dan) and Mobile Pie (Richard), to create Happy Packages. After some early PR from the Guardian, Mobile Pie have knuckled down to turn out a number of games and have picked up some awards along the way. They’ve also since been confirmed as one of the first 4,000 iPhone developers and are working with Futurelab to find funding for an exciting e-learning project.

Another Sandbox success is the Comfort of Strangers from the eponymous Simon + Simon. Using a heavily modified mscapes platform, two teams have to ‘discover’ matched players while avoiding opponents. A soft voice in your ear is all that alerts you to the fact that ‘a dancer is nearby, you have lost a life point…’ This ARG team game has been showcased at New York’s Come Out & Play. They now organise the monthly igLab to explore collaborative and social gaming developments. 19-21 Sept they’re turning Bristol into one giant playground… everyone is playing – running, hiding, seeking, finding, escaping, tagging…. igFest.

Just north of the M5, Chris & Craig at BexMedia have been developing a video platform for mobile devices, recently expanding into interactive video after developing a mobile map & video experience for freshers to quickly acquaint themselves with Anglia Ruskin University. On a slightly bigger scale is the Visualise project from 3C Research to bring unprecedented levels of personalised streaming data & video to mobile devices at live sports events. Currently with the World Rally Championships, Nigel’s actively spinning out new startups to commercialise the software & services.

Round the beck end, The Web People started up coding websites like everyone else but Tom quickly developed a web-services management system that made it simple for him to manage lots of websites, with lots of different services, for lots of clients all in parallel. Co-founder Mark saw the opportunity, they’ve just launched an open beta, and on track for some stellar growth (clients are already beating a path to their door). Also working behind the scenes to spread and gather the word virally is Team Rubber with Andy at the helm. Though not strictly a startup, having survived the dot-com boom, Andy’s a staunch supporter and is actively helping the ‘new guys’ get off the ground.

Behind all these successes lies a growing entrepreneurial ecosystem mixing startups, future clients, partners and investors. This mixing covers everything from the fun & interesting (Dorkbot / igLab), learning & technical (Skillswap / BathCamp), business & sectoral (OpenCoffee / Media Tuesday) to University sponsored (BEN). Its not just the geeks & designers either, lawyers, accountants and exec recruiters are getting behind the start-up scene in Bristol like never before.

Update – following the TCUK comments, I’ve added some more thoughts below – Update

Matt Jukes pointed out the education leadership that Bristol has shown with the work of Futurelab and JISC in the region. He also got a name drop in for Beanbag Learning (where he’s based) and pointed up Science TV. BeanBag are getting more attention from Jemima Kiss at the Guardian’s tech blog which is great news.

Perhaps this is another focus area for Bristol to consider? There have been a couple posts on the education start-up scene including another guest post from Al Briggs on TCUK. The comments section of that post goes into some discussion on the UK education sector, including a great mini-post by David McAll from One of David’s points is the need to build relationships slowly which probably reflects most ‘real world’ applications but makes it harder to justify the hockey stick returns beloved of VCs.

I also advise Heliotrope, a start-up in the education sector. They’re based in Toronto, Canada and have been doing this slow burn relationship building for over 3 yrs (during the last 18 months we’ve been actively seeking investment). The first real success is just now beginning to take hold with a School Board in Quebec adopting Prelude for multi-school roll-out. It’ll be tight (and we’d still like the investment) but it looks like there’s a sustainable revenue model from this approach.

Bristol has a strong democracy and participatory culture, good technology and software development, and track record in educational innovation. Perhaps it would be a good primary focus for some of the city’s digital innovators? In the fields of informal learning, games as learning, soft skills, etc (i.e. non-curriculum examined subjects that translate well between geographies and school systems) there are opportunities.

With a global focus and patient investment, might this be the next big thing…?

What’s the BizIdea?

[Disclosure: I attended in my role as Flagship Initiative Adviser for Knowledge West, we have the Knowledge West Enterprise Awards, which brings together competitors from the 6 University Business Plan competitions in the area. However, I’m not on that judging panel, nor this one, and my views here are not those of Knowledge West.]

After the introductions and thank yous, the keynote was Adam Goodyer (co-founder of Concert Live, UWE graduate & HSBC 2007 Start-Up Stars winner). Adam gave a barn storming keynote, with a mix of humour, humility and insight into how they’d grown and overcome early adversity. Concert Live basically record gigs live, mix them to CD, burn them and then sell to the crowd just as they’re leaving the gig. Following early success (they secured an early contract to cover The Levellers gig tour) they hit a dry patch where the industry wouldn’t touch them because their business model was perceived as potentially competitive to the core business of shifting CD singles.

Adam used Porter’s 5 Forces to identity the dominant force in the market (major label’s fear of losing sales & chart positions) that was overcoming a strong customer force (people love buying CD’s of the actual gig they attended) and figured out how to flip the forces in their favour. By setting up a secure chart transaction system to sell singles at the gig, they could bundle a couple of singles mixes in with the live CD. That was a bonus to the customers (they basically got 2 albums for the price of one) and a huge bonus to the Labels (each single mix counts as a separate chart sale). They could then go to the major labels and say that by giving Concert Live a license, their artist would shoot up the chart with every concert, genius!

Adam then admitted that they hadn’t actually sat down with Porter’s diagram and worked it out, but the process did accurately describe what they’d down and how they’d identified the dominant players and the blockage that needed to be cleared.

Next up was Patrick Dasoberi (Student Community Portal System & 2007 BizIdea winner). Patrick’s idea, as submitted to the 2007competition, had evolved significantly into the business he’s now running, though the core vision is the same: helping temporary international residents find their way in a new country. Patrick’s initial focus was on the student population but he’s now working with a wide range of organisations that send people around the globe to work in communities.

What was really interesting was that the software developed to do this (Whahala), is to be provided as a white label solution for other organisations that want to establish their own international support network. Very cool!

Claire Foster (Superjuice) – discovered smoothies and juice bars when on her travels in Australia. When she came back to the UK it proved really difficult to get the same idea of the ground here. So she went to London and talked to everyone in the juice/smoothie business (being from Somerset she wasn’t perceived as a threat). She went down into the far South West and worked a couple days for free to learn the business. She then landed some Business Link support, Princes Trust support (links to page with video) and things began to take off. She’s now purveying to the rich and famous (well Prince Charles at least) and building her brand. The immediate expansion plans are into the new Bristol Broadmead development.

Last up on the Keynotes was Sally Lincon (co-founder Nomensa). Sally described their journey of building a digital design and usability company, along with some highs & lows.The common thread with all the presentations was that every day was different and they all thoroughly enjoyed the experience of running their own businesses.

Competition Winners

The winner of the Best Business Idea was Carolyn (Chief Whale of Whale Bags), eco-shopping bags made of 100% cotton/calico that fold neatly into a small pocket that’s part of the bag. We didn’t get to see the business plan but the idea is a really good one, and very topical with the Zeitgeist of recycling and reusing shopping bags.
The runner up was Magee Private Investigator, a criminal law student that setting up her own PI business. The gap in the market being that soon PI’s will have to be licensed (they aren’t at the moment), with her law background Magee thinks she’s got a differentiator.

The winner of the Best Social Enterprise Idea was the Bristol Festival Community Group a collection of volunteers, with a wide range of backgrounds, interests and ages, who have come together to plan a community-based festival for September 2008 following the sad demise of the Bristol Community Festival at Ashton Court. The runner up was Vscheme a volunteering management scheme for individuals and organisations.

In the Best Creative Design Idea, the winner was Five on One (can’t find a website) with a DVD magazine showcase five aspects of Bristol social and cultural scene, given away alongside Venue magazine and funded through advertising. The runner-up was Basic Baroques, providing everyone with the elements to make their own baroque styled interior.

[I’ll try and get more links and logos as people launch their websites]

OpenCoffee Club Bristol

Uploaded by Lutz-R. Frank on
02 Aug 07.

The reason this post is a bit late is I spent most of yesterday evening setting up a Facebook group for OpenCoffee Club Bristol (and we already have 5 members, cheers), posting the next four dates (17 June, 1 & 15 & 29 July and 5 August), updating the upcoming group (17 Jun, 1, 15, 29 Jul, 5 Aug), and posting the OpenCoffee Bristol Twitter; still need to construct an OpenCoffee group in my Gmail (for those not on the aforementioned socnets) to send out reminders and updates.

Back to yesterday, Sam and I arrived just after 8am and set up shop downstairs while the Starbucks folks put up signs and balloons. First to arrive was James and we quickly had a couple tables pulled together with discussions bouncing around business, technology, social catching up and finding out what each other did.

Chris Garrett (via Twitter) and Craig Hellen came down from Gloucestershire with their new mobile, locative and video media ideas. After exploring their business model and target segments a few business cards swifted exchanged hands, which is what its all about.

About half-way through the morning a couple of fresh pots of coffee arrived and refueled everyone through to past 10.30am.

We closed with Martyn Shiner’s open source manufacturing systems development project at Severn Delta. They’ve built their own system and are looking for hot php/PostgreSQL/UI coders to help them turn an internal project into a set of repositories that they can open up properly to other companies as a series of modules (sorry if I got a few details wrong Martyn). Martyn’s still looking so if you’re in the Somerset area (or are happy to spend a bit of time there) drop him a note on twitter (if it’s up).

Portfolio business planning

Uploaded by frozenchipmunk on
20 Aug 07.

Not about a portfolio of businesses, but rather for a business to have a portfolio of income streams from a single (or small number) of core products / services.

Several recent conversations in Bristol, Leeds, London and elsewhere have shown that a winning business model could be through diversification of income. A number of excellent projects have been initiated with funding from the Government or charitable foundations. These usually have a section on sustainability, but they tend to be very light.

When the funding ends, the crunch bites. Obviously you don’t want to kill the service, goodwill and community that’s been built up, but without a cash flow, any service will end or at best stagnate.

I’ve found examples of deep community knowledge and solid data even without Facebook / Phorm style tracking. The challenge then becomes how to identify income streams to sustain the service/community once the grant funding runs out.

The models that are intriguing me most at the moment are blending sponsorship models (basically brand association), membership fees, and the possibility of consultancy / expert witness type activity.

If you’re managing a community (however lightly) then you know the demographics, levels of engagement, patterns of engagement, areas of interests, what’s current, what annoys, etc. And that’s valuable knowledge, knowledge that another organisation wishing to work with that group, or develop products/services for that group may pay for. This is not about selling your email list / registration database, there are good data protection laws in place to stop that.

So that’s part of what’s interesting me at the moment; mixed business models blending sponsorship, membership and consultancy. The other two two oft-cited business models (freemium services & advertising) are also of interest for commercial clients, but less so in the situation of many foundation initiated projects.

What are your experiences of transitioning from grant funding to revenue funding?

Celebrating failure

Disclosure: As well as Managing Partner of jbsh LLP (the business behind this blog) I also work part time for the University of the West of England on the Knowledge West project managing their QuickMark® service.]

Pedestrian stop lights on Gibralter runwayToday was an important day for jbsh, I gave our first unsuccessful pitch. Obviously in writing research grant applications and funding proposals, I’ve had unsuccessful submissions and I’ve talked a couple of clients out of engaging me in favour of more appropriate (and cheaper or free) options.

What was different today was that I really felt that this was a great business that I could add value to.

With most funding applications you don’t get great feedback on why you’re unsuccessful. When the negative email came through there was an invitation to explore why we weren’t proceeding with the plan as discussed.

The discussion brought an important point home, you need to constantly evaluate every message across every medium to make sure it’s effective and conveying what you think it is. I’ve been working on building the QuickMark service, taking on new Researchers and more clients. I’m actively seeking ways to grow and build the service as a sustainable offering outside the funding that has provided stability so far. In doing this I’ve significantly refined the proposition, carefully positioning the service between the core activities that the Universities offer and those that are provided by commercial market research organisations.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t spent quite so much time on this blog evaluating what message I wanted it to convey. Originally it was a place to share thoughts, talk about events I’d attended and give jbsh LLP a presence on the web. This has all be augmented by LinkedIn, Facebook, MyBlogLog, Twitter, etc. Since that launch (almost exactly a year ago) the message that this blog is being used to convey has changed. Sam is using it to promote, explain and disseminate her research, and I was using it to build confidence with potential clients to trust their businesses to my advice and guidance. This last bit hasn’t worked, because I haven’t developed the blog, I’ve just used it to a different purpose (one it wasn’t designed for).

The other messages are still important, so we won’t undergo a complete redesign, but there will be some changes. Most critically I’ll be putting more references to existing jbsh clients and stories from businesses I’ve helped in the past.

It’s not survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the most adaptable and appropriate to the environment.

[Note on the photo: I grew up in Gibraltar and have fond memories of walking across the runway to catch planes to ‘exotic’ locations like Southend where my Grandad lived. My first thought was say something about stopping and re-evaluating, hence the flickr search for stop signs. Searches for failure weren’t as nice so I’m sticking with the image.]

Open Coffee good in Bristol

Uploaded by suresh_gundappa on
17 Aug 06, 9.27AM BST.

The nominal theme for this morning’s Open Coffee was ‘articulating your message’, or the art of the elevator pitch. Without wishing to do anyone (including myself) out of a job – go to this blog post and read it.  Actually might as well read the whole site if you’re looking at the investor path.

Having suggested that Matt from Montage Communications might get the ball rolling with a few pithy words on communicating complex ideas in compact spaces, by the time I got downstairs at Starbucks on Park St, the conversation was in full flow!

With roughly 2:1 entrepreneurs to business support professionals there was plenty of discussion and swapping of business cards. Everyone I spoke to had met someone new and interesting.

My new connection was with Rob Cox, launching a new motivational and self belief workshop and mentoring service for kids to “Dream, Believe, Achieve“.

Thanks go to Hannah at Montage Communications for handling the coordination with Starbucks and to Rosie (Interim Store Manager, Starbucks) for keeping the (free) coffee and cakes flowing.

The next Open Coffee is on 20 May, same Starbucks on Park St., please sign up or leave a comment here so that Rosie can order in enough fresh muffins! 🙂

Open Coffee launch details


I mentioned earlier on Twitter that I was hoping to confirm some additional support for Open Coffee, well Starbucks are getting behind us and offering free coffee, free muffins and free WiFi to attendees of Open Coffee at 9am Tuesday, 6 May.

We’ll be downstairs at the Starbucks on Park Street (map).

Kick off will be from 9am but some folks will be there before and you’re obviously welcome to stay as long as you like. Rosie (the interim Store Manager) has offered free coffee until 11am.

Hopefully this will be a long term partnership for digital companies in Bristol. The next 3 Open Coffee meetings are already scheduled in for 20 May, 3 June and 17 June.

All the details are on the Upcoming group, I’ll be talking about them here and on Twitter, Facebook and anywhere else that folks will be checking out. I’m also hoping to get notes put in BEN event announcements, Creative Technology Network, Bristol Media, Business Link, etc. The purpose is to give those companies (or start-ups) that are building growth businesses in digital software, services or media have an additional physical network to augment their online networks and wider business support services.

See you there!

Geeks & investors, are they oil & water? Lets mix it up a bit…

There’re a ton of networking events taking place in Bristol, but there appears to be a gap around the business of doing business in the digital media / interactive technologies / software
development type area. Simon Bunker launched Open Coffee Bristol almost a year ago but it never really achieved critical mass and became a bit of a pub session to discuss technology (mostly mobile), which is cool but doesn’t address this gap.
Oil and Water Fusion
So is there a gap? Well I think so, and from the feedback at a South West Screen event promoting access to digital media finance, quite a few others think so also. The one clear call after the event was for more structured networking with investors. There was a corollary to that, Andy made the point that there’s no shortage of ideas in Bristol but that’s different to commercial propositions (rather than grant applications, lifestyle support schemes, and one-off art commissioning). The Angel/VC representatives at the event suggested there was no shortage of money, though getting to it might be a bit harder at the moment.

A recent lunch hosted by Nigel Belletty at Milsted Langdon saw the local banks cautiously talking up the business environment in Bristol. Clearly it’s in their interests not to run to the hills screaming “Doomed, we’re all dooooomed” but they were talking about businesses with revenues, customers, products, markets all seeing growth and approaching them for conventional banking services. The point of concern (from my perspective) was the lack of local angels that were prepared to consider digital media / innovation investment prospects. If you have a physical product to show off, you’re probably OK, otherwise you’re probably looking to London or beyond. Which is nuts. This is the 21C, the knowledge economy, mobile, ubiquitous, always on, digital, global, blah blah blah.

Oil and Water Fusion

Originally uploaded by JBR_JBR.

So I’m thinking of a series of Open Coffee-type networking events (to build commercial propositions) with occasional semi-structured evening dinners where entrepreneurs can mix with investors with a view to building relationships towards high growth. This isn’t Investor Readiness and it damn sure ain’t Dragon’s Den, it’s about getting local entrepreneurs, business owners, and start-ups into a support network that will let them learn, practice, connect, and refine their business idea and then decide if they want to jump on the high-growth escalator or carry on with their lifestyle/corporate job. It’s also not all about being the next Google, there are plenty of businesses that are growing very nicely thank-you-very-much on revenues but that may have hit a growth block, or are thinking about the next transition. Clearly the hockey-stick 10x return in 9 months is great PR but that’s not a practical business model for a city-region.

The sort of topic that each session would nominally work around will be familiar to anyone in the start-up, business growth support world:

  • Addressable Market vs 6bn people on the Internet
  • Business models (the whole free thing and monetisation)
  • Financial instruments (equity, debt, share options, convertible debt, SFLGS, etc)
  • No “I” in Team (though there is a “me”) – role of the entrepreneur and their management/advisor team
  • Patents, Open Source, Copyright, Creative Commons, GPLx.x
  • Forecasting growth (and presenting that forecast)
  • Hiring – firing – outsourcing

And so on. If people need specific advise then there are lawyers, accountants, etc that can help, there are Business Link courses, and business professionals (me for one) that will help with planing, strategy, presentation, etc. In fact there’s no shortage of help but it’s not working together in a critical mass that become self sustaining.

So have I had one coffee too many? What would you want to talk to fellow entrepreneurs about? What are you doing in your city/region that’s similar? What works, what doesn’t?

Until I hear otherwise I’ll keep plugging away, everyone I’ve spoken to since the SW Screen event broadly agrees with me. There may be some developments in the near future with Bristol Media but I think there’s a momentum here in Bristol that doesn’t need huge resources to accelerate, just a bit of doing. Which I guess means I should shut up blogging & twittering about it and start putting some events together 🙂 Continue reading “Geeks & investors, are they oil & water? Lets mix it up a bit…”